Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Feast of the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council

In the Byzantine tradition, today is the commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the second held in the city of Nicaea, at which the Iconoclast heresy was condemned, and the sacred images restored to their rightful places for the veneration of the Christian faithful. At the seventh session of Second Nicaea, the definitive decree on the veneration of images was promulgated, on October 13, 787; the commemoration is fixed according to various traditions to a Sunday close to that date. At the Russicum here in Rome, the homilist reminded us of an important truth about Second Nicaea, namely, that it did not decree that sacred images are merely good and useful, but that they are necessary!

The rejection of the sacred images, particularly those of Christ, is ultimately a denial of the Incarnation. The very choice of location for the council expressed this idea; at the time it was called, the two previous ecumenical councils and the important synod ‘in Trullo’ had all been held in Constantinople. The Empress Irene, who as regent of her young son Constantine VI, arranged for a council to condemn iconoclasm, had tried to hold it in the imperial capital, but it was broken up by soldiers friendly to the iconoclast heresy. It was therefore moved to Nicaea, where the first ecumenical council had gathered 462 years earlier to condemn the Arian heresy that denied the true divinity of Christ. (To put this in chronological perspective, a greater distance in time than that between Trent and Vatican II.)

The refusal to depict Christ is a rejection of the fullness of His humanity, which is real, solid, and “circumscribed”, i.e., subject to limitations, and therefore capable of being expressed in an image. His humanity is the means of our redemption and salvation, as we confess in the Creed every Sunday, “For us men and for our salvation He came down from Heaven etc.” In the eighth and final session, the Council therefore also anathematized all who do not confess that “Christ our God is circumscribed according to His humanity.” The Greek word “perigrapton – circumscribed” is related to the verb “graphein – to write”, the term which is traditionally used in Greek to refer to the painting of icons. None of this is accidental.

The famous icon of Christ the Pantocrator from the Monastery of St. Catherine on Mt Sinai, 6th century. The collection of icon at St. Catherine’s is particularly important, since it contains a large number of pieces that predate the iconoclast persecutions.
The liturgical texts proper to this commemoration make the point in a very interesting way. At Second Nicaea, the Patriarchs of Constantinople who had supported the iconoclast heresy were all condemned by name. However, they are not referred to in the liturgy, nor are the iconoclast emperors Leo the Isaurian (the real inventor and motivator of iconoclasm), and his two successors, Constantine V and Leo IV. (The traditional nickname of the second of these, “Copronymus”, means “dung-named” in Greek: a reference to an unfortunate accident at his baptism, which was taken by those who honored the sacred images as a presage of his impiety. It occurs repeatedly in the Roman Martyrology, in reference to the many saints killed or otherwise persecuted by him for the sake of the sacred images.)

It would be easy, but unjust, to see in this omission nothing more than an unwillingness to offend the offices of the Emperor and Patriarch. The greater truth taught by the Council, and by the Byzantine liturgy, is that the refusal of sacred images is a refusal of the Incarnation. To this point, therefore, the earlier Christological heretics are named repeatedly in the liturgy of the day, as in these texts from Vespers (bold texts are my emphases).
As true shepherds you bravely drove away those who are like Macedonius, Nestorius, Eutyches, Dioscorus, Apollinaris, Sabellius and Severus (of Antioch), exposed as dangerous wolves in sheepskins, far from the Savior’s flock, stripped of their fleeces, making them thrice-wretched; therefore we call you blessed.

Let us praise today the mystical trumpets of the Spirit, the God-bearing Fathers, who sang a harmonious melody of theology in the midst of the Church, to the one Trinity, unchanging Essence and Godhead; the overthrowers of Arius, the champions of the Orthodox, who intercede with the Lord that He may have mercy on our souls.

Holy Fathers, you have become sure guardians of the Apostolic traditions; for by teaching the orthodox doctrine of the consubstantiality of the Holy Trinity, you overthrew in council the blasphemy of Arius. With him you refuted Macedonius, the opponent of the Spirit, and condemned Nestorius, Eutyches and Dioscorus, Sabellius and Severus the Leaderless. We implore you: beg that we who have been delivered from their error may preserve our life spotless in the faith.
The following text, sung between the first and second parts of the Doxology at the Aposticha, is particularly noteworthy. One might easily assume it was a part of the commemoration of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council on the Sunday after the Ascension, rather than that of today, again underlining the intrinsic connection between iconoclasm and Arianism, and between veneration of the images and the Incarnation. (update: A friend of mine who is a great scholar of the Byzantine liturgy tells me that this hymn may very well have been composed for the commemoration of the Fathers of First Nicaea, and later added to this feast.)
Let us with faith celebrate today the yearly commemoration of the God-bearing Fathers, who were assembled from the whole world in the radiant city of Nicaea, as we reverence the gatherings of the orthodox; for they, their minds attuned to true religion, overthrew the godless teaching of Arius, and in council banished him from the Catholic Church; and in the symbol of faith, which they precisely and devoutly laid down, they taught all to confess clearly the Son of God as consubstantial and co-eternal, and existing before the ages. And so we too, following their divine teachings and firm in our belief, worship the Son and the all-holy Spirit with the Father, in one Godhead, a consubstantial Trinity.
A 19th-century Russian icon of the Fathers of the First Seven Ecumenical Councils. The Byzantine liturgy contains several such commemorations: of the fathers at First Nicaea, at Ephesus, at Second Nicaea, at the Seven Councils collectively.
Although Iconoclasm was definitively condemned at Second Nicaea, it was revived in the early 9th century for almost thirty years under the emperors Leo V (813-20), Michael II (820-29) and Theophilus (829-42). Shortly after Theophilus’ son Michael III, (the bearer of another unfortunate nickname, “the Drunkard”), came to the throne as a child of two, his mother and regent Theodora arranged for the definitive restoration of the icons at a synod in Constantinople. (Theodora is venerated as a saint in the Byzantine Rite.)

St. Theodora, Empress of Byzantium, in a 19th-century Greek icon.
The liturgical expression of this final victory is the celebration of the first Sunday of Lent as the “Feast of Orthodoxy.” On that day, the Byzantine liturgy reads a text known as the “Synodikon of Orthodoxy”, a collection of the anathemas of the first seven ecumenical councils. The text has been much altered and added to over the years, but the first rubric in one of the oldest manuscripts describes it thus: “A yearly thanksgiving is due to God on account of that day when we recovered the Church of God, with the demonstration of the dogmas of true religion and the overthrowing of the blasphemies of wickedness.”

The final eight anathemas are dedicated to the iconoclasts, (and the iconoclast patriarchs are named explicitly.) The first one says,
On those who accept with their reason the incarnate economy of God the Word, but will not allow that this can be beheld through images, and therefore affect to receive our salvation in words, but deny it in reality: Anathema!
And the second:
On those who wickedly make play with the word ‘uncircumscribed’ and therefore refuse to depict in images Christ, our true God, who likewise shared our flesh and blood, and therefore show themselves to be fantasiasts: Anathema!
All liturgical texts quoted in this article are taken from the website, with a few slight modifications.

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